Recovery runs are a vital part of training if you want to improve your running. Learn why they’re important and how slow you should run them!
One of the first things I noticed after I started working with a running coach was the number of recovery runs on the schedule. And the first thing I started hearing repeatedly from my coach was to slow down on those recovery runs. And to slow down a lot.
When I’m in marathon training mode, my training plan has 3-4 recovery runs per week. That means the bulk of my training and miles are done at slower paces. Hard workout runs are a much smaller amount of the work. Why? In order to nail the hard workouts, it’s important to run easy the other days.
Running at a conversational pace means your body isn’t constantly being pushed. And that’s important so you feel fresh on your hard days and can REALLY push hard, and that’s part of what will help you improve your running. If you’re worn out by your day-to-day training, you won’t make improvements in speed or endurance.
I asked my coach Enoch Nadler, an elite runner, to further explain the real benefits of recovery runs since I’m more likely to do something if I understand why. I’m sharing what he shared with me!
Over to you Enoch!
The number one mistake that runners make is going too fast on their easy days. Most runners think that you need lots of speed work, tempos, fartleks or even hills to run faster. And don’t get me wrong, these are important. But in reality, developing the aerobic system is the single most important factor for long-term development and improvement. Here are a few reasons you run your easy days easy.
1: Capillary and Mitochondria Development
Recovery runs should be completed at a pace of around 55-75% of your 5k race pace (think 2-2.5 min slower than 5k race pace). This pace is ideal for mitochondria and capillary development.
Mitochondria is directly responsible for creating energy for your muscles. Recovery runs increase both the number and the size of your mitochondria in your muscle fibers and increase blood flow to the legs.
Next, capillaries are responsible for delivering oxygen to your muscles and clearing out waste that is produced from exercise. Running at this easy pace increases the number of capillaries per muscle fiber. This directly correlates to how efficiently you deliver oxygen and clear out waste like lactic acid.
When you run faster than this ideal range, your development of the aerobic system is greatly diminished. Yes, diminished. That means it will be harder to become a better runner who can run faster and longer.
2. Aerobic Development
Aerobic development is important from the mile to the marathon. The marathon is around 97% aerobic, which comes as no surprise. But even the mile is 80% aerobic, making slow runs vital for running fast. All these easy runs add up to running faster across all race distances!
If you’re not training for a specific race, base training is a great time to work on aerobic development. Base training should also be done at a slower pace.
3. Avoiding Injury and Overtraining
Recovery runs make up the majority of the time we spend running. All this time adds stress to your bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. When you run faster, not only do you decrease aerobic development, you also increase the strain on your body, leading to more injuries.
Recovery runs also serve as active recovery from hard workouts and races. If you run too fast on these runs, you won’t recover and will soon fatigue and break down.
The stress and fatigue compound so we often think a certain workout or race causes injury. In reality, it’s often the cumulative effect of not recovering on our easy days.
Thanks Enoch!! Let’s all read that last sentence again, shall we?
How slow to run recovery runs
Remember, recovery runs should be run at 55-75% of your 5k race pace. That’s 2-2.5 min slower than your 5k or 10K race pace. There are a few other ways to help you run slow enough.
Use the talk test – if you can’t say complete sentences easily while running, you’re running too fast.
Wear a heart rate monitor and aim for 65 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Think of your recovery runs as recovery workouts. Tell yourself that you aren’t following your raining plan if you go too fast. Decide in advance how slowly you will run.
If you aren’t disciplined enough to run recovery workouts slow enough, cross train rather than run for a day.
Or, skip a workout. You’ll be okay if you go 24 hours without working out. Enoch often reminded me that I am much more likely to run a race PR if I show up to the start line healthy. And if I don’t take rest days, I’m much more likely to get injured.
Don’t believe me? Even elite runners run much more slowly on their easy days. Many have shared their recovery runs are 3-4 minutes slower than the pace they run to win races. If they can slow down, you can too.
Sample week from my 2019 marathon training
So, what does that look like in practice? Below is a sample week from my marathon training when Enoch trained me for the 2019 Boston Marathon, where I set a big PR. Tommy and I were on vacation in Palm Beach, FL and it was great to have him along for some training. (These photos make me miss traveling and running in warm temperatures!)
Note all the recovery runs! I was running easy 4-5 times per week.
M – Double Run Day, 11.3 total miles
8-12 x 400 @ V.O2Max pace, 4 x 30 seconds FAST + warm-up & cool down
T – 65 min recovery run + strides, average 8:08 pace
W – 95 minutes, recovery, average 8:30ish pace
Th – 55 minute recovery run, 9:07 pace
F – 3 x 7 min with 2 min jog, then 6 x :15 hills + warm-up & cool down
Sa – 30 minute run with my husband, 9:03 pace
If you struggle to slow down on your recovery runs, run with someone who is slower than you! You don’t want to be the jerk who leaves them behind, right? Right. Plus, running with a friend or someone you love, is a lovely way to spend time together. Plus, you never know if you’ll inspire them to stick with it – Tommy ran his first half marathon later that year!
Su – 45 recovery run with Tommy, 8:40 pace
My coach sent me the comment below on Strava, and re-iterated it again via text that he really likes when I go slower on my recovery runs. Thanks Tommy! 😉
Do you struggle with recovery runs? Do you even have set recovery days? I’d love to hear what your weekly training is like!
One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the 20+ years I’ve been running is listening to my body and knowing what it’s telling me. Some days my recovery runs feel great at an 8:00 pace. Other days, I’m closer to a 10:00 min pace.
For me, the biggest thing I focus on is effort. It should feel like recovery with nothing being forced. It’s one of the reasons I like doing my recovery runs solo since it lets me listen to my body and adjust as necessary. The first few miles are generally a slog and it’s important to let my body have that. And if I don’t, Enoch lets me know. ha!
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